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img_1777In times of turmoil we seek summits and points of vantage to gain clarity of vision.

When I was younger I would go to the Lake District to climb a hill and breathe clean air and give myself greater clarity. Given I didn’t drive (or ride a bike) I would often find myself in places you could reach by public transport and so Ambleside was a popular choice for a young man with a busy mind.

Roll forward a decade or two and my mind remains busy but I’ve added both a driving licence and an ability to ride a bike and so when I saw the inaugural Ambleside Trail 60 on the ultra event calendar I decided that this was for me.

The race was being organised in conjunction between the long established The Climbers Shop (find out more here) in Ambleside and charity The Brathay Trust (find out more here) – both well respected pillars of the community.

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I therefore had high expectations for the event.

When looking at the Ambleside Trail 60 on paper you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s rather easy and with a tad under 2,500metres of climb it all seemed perfectly respectable. The problem comes is that when deciding to do this I had conflated the shortness of the distance and relatively low ascent numbers to think this was going to be easy. How wrong can you be?

But anyway let me add a bit of context to proceedings – I’d had an excellent July, training had gone well and I’d come off the Ben Vorlich Ultra feeling pretty good and without injury. The truth is I’d felt so good that I’d returned to training the following day and was looking forwarding to maintaining my running mental strength by taking part in the Thieves Road Ultra. In typical fashion though disaster struck and I took a nasty tumble running up a hill and put a bloody big hole in my knee and this was supplemented by a shitty infection that I couldn’t shift. However, with August 10th approaching I knew that momentum was on my side and I’d be okay(ish) to race but it seemed my August ultra curse was set to continue and the race was cancelled due to the potential for adverse conditions.

What happened next was that race was reorganised for two weeks later, my illness got worse and on race day I spent about 8hrs on the porcelain throne. This time it was me cancelling the race and so I rolled up to the Ambleside 60 with very little training but a lot of chocolate eating done.

As I’ve said I’m a huge fan of The Lake District and Cumbria, it’s a truly spectacular place and so I was very happy to be there on a beautiful morning watching the world go by.

Strangely for an ultra it was taking place on a Sunday which meant I’d had the luxury of bimbling around the Lakes the day previously taking in the delights of Ambleside and registering with the event organisers at The Climbers Shop. Registration was both quick and easy and the lovely organisers were on hand to answer all of my ridiculous questions. I was also mightily impressed that race sponsor Rab (I assume) threw in a warm beanie which is likely to make its race debut later in the year. It was here that I bumped into Ed, a fellow competitor from Ben Vorlich and it was lovely to ‘chew the fat’ with him for a few minutes and catch up about what had happened at the race end. However, we soon parted and I found myself at a loose end but with lots of wonderful outdoor stores strewn across the town – I decide me to make hay while the sun shone. Lunch was a delicious spicy chicken baguette with a slab of honeycomb cake and this was followed by short trips to Kendal and Keswick to make the most of my stay.

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I had the luxury of having a six berth dorm room all to myself at the waterside YHA in Ambleside and I went to bed early to try and get as rested as possible. Kit was prepared, breakfast readied and I knew where I was going in the morning.

The organisers had suggested the pay & display car park in Ambleside, which given it was a few minutes from the start, made good sense. With water bottles now filled I headed to the start in Rothay Park and silently soaked up the friendly, banter atmosphere. I’ve grown rather accustomed to knowing runners at races, wherever I am, both here and abroad – so it was something of a surprise to not see any faces I knew. I wandered around a little bit before setting amongst the throng of ultra runners all keen for the start.

We were all instructed to dib our chips at the start which had been attached to us at registration. I found these mildly intrusive as they never felt very comfortable around the wrist and I fretted about them working loose and ending up in a puddle of mud somewhere on a hill. Thankfully it never did work loose but I found it uncomfortable compared to some of the alternatives that I’ve had to wear. That said the system was simple enough to use and the setup both at the start and at checkpoints was well thought out.

With an 8am start looming we were all corralled into the starting area and after a short briefing and some words of encouragement the 175(ish) runners burst forward and out of Rothay Park and into the wilderness. It’s fair to say that a number of ‘trail’ races that I’ve been part of have actually had quite significant amounts of road or tarmac involved but this experience was very different. From the near outset there was trail and nature surrounding the runners.

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As we wound our way through the first few kilometres it was clear that this was going to be s tougher day than I had originally imagined and as I looked down at my faithful Suunto I could see the elevation metres quickly stacking up. Those first few miles were easily the simplest on the route and with excellent route marking even I couldn’t go wrong. We wended our way through the variety of trails, up and down hills and along some of England’s finest scenery. For the most part I was making good time against the other runners – using my preferred tactic of ‘go as fast as you cN for as long as you can and then death march it in’. I made sure I was taking on board regular fluids and even a little food from early in proceedings as this would ensure I could still take on everything late in the event. I topped up my intake with some Active Root, which is about the only electrolyte style supplement I can stomach, and this kept me level and stopped significant dips – something to consider if you’re running well.

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I ran the first 15km pretty consistently and covered around 600 metres of climb – despite the recent rains the ground was in good condition and the route was runnable. Although I had poles with me I had decided that I would refrain from their use until I really needed them and despite the ascents I didn’t feel I needed them in the firs quarter of the event. The views were delightful and this was very much The Lake District of my youth – some places dragged up long forgotten memories and it was a very pleasant experience. It was here that I met Deborah – about 2.5 miles from the first checkpoint. We chatted for a while, as we bounded forward and this was such a pleasant experience that I barely noticed the run into the checkpoint.

Checkpoint one was brilliant with the marshalling team all dressed as chefs with big chef hats, the team were incredibly well drilled – timer, water, food, out, out, out! I was very impressed with the team and the organisation of the event on the whole, if I were to take a guess this was not their first rodeo. The quality of the food on offer was brilliant and as I left the checkpoint I felt buoyed by the energy the team have thrust upon me. In the distance I could see Deborah disappearing and continued my journey alone.

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The second section was going to be tougher with the first 600 metres climbed this meant that there was still around 1700 metres to climb and around a marathon to do it in. 2 hours down – 12 hours to go. I knew that the first significant climb was soon to be upon us and in the distance twinkling like little neon and Lycra clad stars were a succession of slow moving runners as the route moved up a gear in toughness.

It was now that the route threw challenge after challenge at us, the trail had moved from being mostly runnable to being filled with big lumpy rocks, it was wet underfoot and it changed from soaking to dry making your shoe choice irrelevant in the face of the varying conditions. I threw open my poles for the first time and began the slow journey upwards, happy in the knowledge that I had built up a reserve of time in the early stages of the race. However, as I looked ever upwards it was with a deep sense of foreboding – this was the first and easiest ascent and it was far from easy.

I decided that given I still had some strength in my legs I would do the climb in bursts and so would have a short stop and then powered up the next couple of hundred metres, stop and repeat. This technique helps me with the fatigue my legs get from the constant ball achingly monotonous striding of hiking up the hills (something I knew I would be forced into later in the day). My lack of training in the last month and the over eating was also playing a significant part now in my performance – runners were passing me as I struggled with the up hills and the beating my feet were now taking. However, I knew that on the downhill as long as the path was relatively runnable I would be able to make up some ground. Where some runners are guarded about running downhill too quickly for fear of a fall I am usually pretty surefooted and confident in my own ability. Therefore once the peak was reached I felt that I had little choice but to open up the taps a bit and go for it.

 

My descent was as quick as my ascent was slow and I found myself able to catch some of the runners that had managed to overtake me and I felt with nearly 1,000 metres of ascent done and about 20km in distance done I was feeling confident and then the ridiculous kicked in – I slipped. Bang down – on my back, on my arse, on all my weakest points. The two young runners ahead of me turned and shouted to find out if I was okay and I waved them on but I was far from alright. My back, which is troubling at the best of times, had shooting pain running through it and I had cut my hand open in several places and was bleeding. I picked my muddy form off the floor and cursed my own stupidity – I ran down to the little stream and put my buff in the water and wrapped it around my hand attempting to soak up the blood. I had been very lucky, within a few minutes the bleeding had stopped and I managed to clean up the various gashes that now covered my left hand – the realisation was dawning upon me that this route was going to give me a good kicking before it was finished.

I pushed onwards through the next few kilometres, slowing a little to account for the worsening running conditions, the rocky terrain became incredibly hard going and in my opinion it felt more like fell running than it did ultra trail running but it all added to the complexity of the challenge of finishing. I finally reached the halfway point and was greeted by the most welcoming committee of marshals, supporters and runners. Given I was so far from the lead it was no surprise to see my fellow racers in various states of distress, I grabbed a bit of grass and threw my bag to floor and motored over to the food table and stuffed my face with the delicious sausage rolls with the amazing pastry (I’m going to assume veggie but don’t want to know as they were so delicious it would disappoint me to know I’d been eating something mildly healthy). I drank as much tea as I could handle, grabbed a bit of soft chewy cake, filled my water bottles and then followed the other runners out of the checkpoint.

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It was here that I would make the relationship that would see me cross the finish line, though it did not begin well but I’ll get to that later.

From CP2 we were presented with a climb up Stake Pass, a beautiful climb and no mistake but a technical, rocky ascent that required maximum concentration all the way and its windy nature meant that you felt progress was even slower than it actually was. I used my brutish bursts of power to push myself up the pass and once more in the distance before and ahead of me I could see the swathes of runners slowly climbing to the summit. I kept telling myself that this is something I enjoy when moments of doubt would creep into my thinking but the reality was that my feet were burning from the damage that rocks underfoot where doing.

My feet are brittle at the best of times but the damp conditions coupled with the rocks were crippling me, the only plus I could find was that my Lone Peaks combined with Injinji liner and Drymax socks and my beloved Dirty Girls Gaiters were working overtime in protecting me from the worst of the route.

About halfway up local legend Keith passed me with his wonderfully consistent pace and all I could do when he went beyond me asking, ‘alright?’ I responded with, ‘had better days’ but Keith may have misinterpreted my joke for sincere annoyance and he simply shrugged his shoulder and pushed on. I thought nothing more of it really but like the cut of his pace and thought if I could keep up with him I might well be alright – but he, like many before, was soon gone.

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I retreated the comfort of the nearest rock I could find and grabbed some food from my race vest and looked longingly into the middle distance as dark and detrimental thoughts crept across my furrowed brow. ‘More than halfway’ I thought, ‘but my feet are bruised to buggery, my race vest is heavy and worse than that my back and arm was on fire from injuries both old and new’. However, the sight of runners closing in on me made me get off my backside and hurl myself up the hill and eventually I made it to the summit. I could see some of the runners who had made it past me and so I picked Keith as my target – if I could catch him before the arrival of the next checkpoint I would continue.

The route off the pass was as unrunnable as the route up with rocks jutting up from every angle and care required about just where the hell you were putting your feet. If you were less cautious you might have avoided the path  and run straight down the hill – but given I had no idea where I was or how far behind the next runner was – I did not fancy falling off Stake Pass. With all due care I made it to the bottom and leapt through the thick nasty smelling mud and crossing streams with all haste attempting to keep my feet as dry as possible. In the distance I could hear the clatter of Keith’s running poles and I realised I was catching him – having a target to aim for had made the journey much more focused and much easier and as I caught him I opened with the much cheerier line, ‘I’ve been chasing you down for ages – thanks for the incentive’ and from here a new race friendship was forged.

Keith was a bit of a running veteran and with 20 more years on the clock the than me he had well earned the right to legend status. He strode purposefully through the route, questioning the runability of some of the course but all the time remaining strong in his continuous push forward – I like Keith very much and over the next few miles we got to chatting and getting to know one another a little. But as is the rule in ultra marathons you run your own race and he reminded me of this several times as he suggested I not wait for him or that he would be waiting long for me. However, we were both moving at about the same speed ad so it turned out neither of us could shake the other one.

Something I was very glad of.

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The road to CP3 was hard and long, we had come off the hill and now it was just finding the checkpoint, hoping that we would make the cut-off and then pushing through as fast as we could up the biggest ascent on the course – Lining Crag. While we both looked and probably felt a bit shitty we both also seemed to gain a newfound mental strength from each other – I certainly did from him and when I started to leave CP3 Keith joined me for some further adventuring.

The strange thing was that despite our low speed we were starting to catch people again and in the close distance we could see runners who had long left me behind and, though I shouldn’t, I was buoyed by seeing other runners finding this a challenge or perhaps I was simply developing a second wind that might carry over the Crag.

Sadly my second wind was very short lived and as I began the ascent I felt every bone in my body scream for mercy, even with the first few hundred metres being relatively gentle this was a climb of false summits and false hope.

One of the great things about Keith was his wide and varied local knowledge, this meant that he was able to be accurate in his assessment of our situation, so when we approached the scramble up to the crag I knew that this was not the summit and that there were further smaller climbs to come. The scramble was actually surprisingly simple and the change of pace on the legs was welcome, I enjoy scrambling although I don’t do it very often as I am terrified of heights. So I finally reached the safety of solid ground that wasn’t going to try and kill me I was very grateful. We  made good time as we crossed the high ground and started to overtake people again and other runners came past us as they picked the pace up a little. On reflection it was nice to know that we were still in a race, often at these type of events you’ll find yourself alone for hours and hours and not knowing where in the race you are, here the numbers were just right to be able to have significant time alone but also know that you could still catch someone.

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We knew that the final checkpoint was at about 53km in and so it was with a little dismay that the ascent to the top of the crag had pushed us forward a mere 2km of the 12km we needed to run. Running remained hard going over the rocky paths and went as fast and securely as we could but both Keith and I were losing our footing at regular intervals and many of the runners had soggy bottoms but perhaps none got the soggy bottom in the way I did.

While crossing a boggy path I lost my footing and into the mid thigh depth mud my leg went, the trouble was that my other leg followed me in and as I fell in my whole body lurched backward in some attempt to create the muddy equivalent of a snow fairy. Keith turned to face me, barely disguising his amusement at the predicament that I found myself in. I managed to stand in the mud and could feel the vacuum attempting to suck my shoes in but I carefully extracted one leg and then the other with no significant loss.  I was caked in mud from head to toe but I had clearly picked the right kit for the event and my wonderful new Runderwear long boxer shorts and Raidlight Freetrail shorts soon dried off and despite being in 3 foot of wet, shitty mud my feet remained warm and toasty.

After picking myself up we headed along the remainder of the route down to Grasmere with little further incident, but we were aware that the final climb and descent had taken much, much longer than anticipated and I was keen to finish as I still had hours in the car driving back to Scotland.

I noticed that both Keith and I were rather quiet as we landed in Grasmere, tiredness was clearly playing a part but seeing the race organisers at the final checkpoint gave us a bit of a life and knowing that we were less than 10km from the finish was the mental nourishment we needed.

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We had been quite quick in the checkpoints up until this point but we stayed a little longer in Grasmere as Keith knew both of the guys from The Climbers Shop (I’m going to go with Mike and Gill but could be wrong). Gill had been at the registration and she clearly remembered my idiotic face from the previous day and the warmth with which I was greeted felt genuine and heartfelt and for that I was very grateful. They tried to stuff our faces with all manner of food and drink but we were so close to the finish that I actually wanted just my water filled and then off and the guys obliged.

Keith and I were very keen to see off the race before the dark became impenetrable and with all the speed we could muster we set out from Grasmere. This final section had a few light climbs on it but it was mainly tarmac that we were following and there was nothing to concern ourselves with – I seem to recall that we spent most of the time on these final few miles being rather jolly and looking forward to food, drinks, showers and in Keith’s case being reunited with his wife and the lovely Border Colllies.

I remember Keith commenting that at this point he had one speed and although I had recovered a little bit and probably could have run this final section I had no desire to leave my companion behind and in truth I’d have only managed to get about a dozen metres ahead before he would have reeled me in again. Meeting Keith made the experience of the Ambleside 60 much more pleasant than it looked like it might have been given the struggles I know he played a huge part in me finishing on Sunday.

We rolled up to Rothay Park and the dark had finally arrived, we thanked the marshalling staff at the final corner and as is my way I tried to have a cheery word/joke and thank you for the guys who were stood there waiting in the cold ensuring that we didn’t take a wrong turn at the final point. In the dim distance I could make out the large finish line inflatable and in front of it were two dibbing points so that we could get a final time. It took me an age to get my bloody dibber in but once I did we were ushered into a tent and given medals, beer and times.

Keith’s wife was there with the dogs and I joined them briefly to thank him and to thank his wife for loaning me such a wonderful gentleman for the day.

We had made it, I had made it.

Overview
Distance: 60km
Cost: £65
Location: Ambleside
Date: September 2019
Tough Rating: 3.5/5

Route
What they said about the route…

starting from Rothay Park, the Ambleside Trail 60 is a 60km loop made up of some iconic Lake District running. From the park, participants will make their way up and over Loughrigg towards Skelwith Bridge, Tarn Hows and from there onwards towards Coniston. Before reaching Coniston, the route climbs above Coniston Coppermine and toward Lad Stones. Continuing onward, the route makes its way to Little Langdale and after a short but punchy climb reaches Blea Tarn. Runners then make their way up Stake Pass and then follow the Langstrath Beck before climbing back up Lining Crag, the biggest climb on the course. Runners descend into Grasmere and slowly wind their way back toward Ambleside..

I’ve run over 50 ultra marathons and I’ve run across some of the toughest trails in the crappiest conditions and I can honestly say that the route of the Ambleside 60km was a bit of a terror. I mentioned earlier that this felt more like an ultra distance fell race than a trail race. Although the path was defined it was, in parts, brutal – despite the shortness of the distance this was a route that really threw everything at you and there was a procession of the walking wounded on the course as the Ambleside 60 took no prisoners.

This is not a route for the inexperienced and had the weather conditions been worse then this would really have given the competitors a challenge that even more might not have finished. What I will say though is that the Ambleside 60 route gave so much back in views and beauty that you really can’t complain about the temporary pain inflicted by the course.

The climbs were tough, the variety was welcome and the route marking was exceptional – just a few less rocky roads would have made this a more complete running experience. Don’t misunderstand me though this was a brilliant route and I feel fortunate to have seen parts of the Lake District that only become accessible if you are willing to put the effort in. The highlight of the route for me was the second climb up Stake Pass, which as well as being as tough old boots, had the wonderful sound of gushing water on both sides of the pass, it had majesty all around it and there was a eeriness about it as you could see nothing of modern life as far as the eye could see – wonderful.

So, perhaps a few little tweaks to make sure that this doesn’t become an ‘only suitable for the mountain goats’ and the route cold be a real winner for everyone wanting to take part.

Organisation
The organisation was 100% top notch, from registration to the near army of marshals that were posted on the course – this was some of the best organisation I have ever seen. The route marking for the most part was fantastic, the little map we received at the start was perfect as a guide and the pre and post race information was concise and informative. A huge thank you should go to all the organisers and especially the marshalling and medical staff who offered friendly faces all over the day. Races like this do not happen without the support of lots of people behind the scenes – and it was clear that the work they had put in here had really paid off.

Kit
I go mountain running most weekends and I go hill running after work and I know what kit I need to carry with me, I know how to be safe in the mountains and in adverse weather conditions and to that end I felt that the mandatory kit list was a little over complicated. I understand completely that safety comes first and that not all runners are experienced in the hills but there does need to be a balance. I did note that a number of the runners had very small amounts of kit with them and you had to wonder how where they fitting all the mandatory kit into such a small space?

Given my back issues carrying all the required kit was always going to be one of the main challenges I faced during the Ambleside 60 and I have a preference to carry specific things that help my individual race needs. For example I have my ridiculously weak feet so spare socks are a must and I’m known to take a picture or two so spare battery is also an essential. But rules are rules and it is important that we all adhere to them – they are designed to ensure your safety isn’t compromised, might just be worth looking next year about a little more flexibility between the mandatory and recommended kit.

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Goodies
Having great sponsors like Rab and Ultimate Directions mean that sometimes there are excellent goodies and this time there was a delightful Rab beanie available pre-race and post race there was some Hawkshead Brewery beer, which if you’re a beer drinker is a great reward for a job well done – obviously as a teetotaller the beer is less relevant to me but I know someone who’ll drink it for me. The medal was nice and understated, which seemed very much in keeping with the whole ethos of the event and I appreciated that. I wore my medal proudly all the way home to Scotland and as I crawled up the stairs to my bedroom upon returning home I made sure that it took its rightful place with its brother and sister medals at the top of the stairs.

Value
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it, the value for money aspect is very much down to personal opinion about your experience. I very much believe that the Ambleside 60 was excellent value for money at £65 and to be fair if you’d charged a little more it would still have represented good value for money. The little goodies, the excellent event staff, the support both before and after, the photography and the challenge of the event itself mean that you have to say you really did get bang for your buck. Some people might bemoan the lack of race T-shirt but the truth is I would rather have had the beanie – it’s always nice to get something useful that most races don’t think about.

Special Mentions
I owe this finish to Keith – I would not have made it without you. Thank you.

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Conclusion
Is this a great race? Not yet.

Does this have the potential to be a great race? Oh yes!

2019 as its inaugural running was a damn fine event, it gave the best views of Ambleside and its surrounds that I’ve ever had the honour of laying my eyes on. The Ambleside 60 has much to recommend it and if you’re lucky enough to have a clear day as we did then you’ll bear witness to a visual treat. The medal for this one really  is worth earning and you will feel like you have accomplished something truly spectacular when, or perhaps more appropriately, if you cross the finishing line. The organisation of the race, for me, makes this one stand out in the memory too – there was genuine care for the runners and that should be recognised, nobody got anything less than 100% from the excellent team.

However, this isn’t perfect I’ve mentioned that it felt like a long distance fell run in places and the course was incredibly hard going at times, even in good conditions. I genuinely believe more responsibility should be on the individual regarding kit choices and I’d probably prefer to see the race run on a Saturday to give runners the Sunday and a chance to rest for their weary bones before a return to grindstone of work on a Monday (I found the drive back to Scotland really tough and Monday was weird in the office). However, if nothing changed, if the race came back next year in exactly the same format would I run it again? The answer is 100% yes, there is something special about the Ambleside 60 and it deserves its soon to be well established reputation as a tough as old boots brilliant ultra marathon.

So if you’ve read this and thought, he sounds likes you had a horrible time, then you’ve misunderstood me, there was no misery for me just a real ball busting challenge – which is primarily what I look for in an ultra marathon and if it is what you look for then you’re going to have a mighty fine time.

Check out the race details here

I’d signed up to the Ben Vorlich Ultra on the back of my entry the Ochil Ultra (also organised by Wee Run Events) and to be fair had not really done much research – but I knew that it ran up a mountain I had been keen to climb and when you combine this with a bit of running then how could you possibly go wrong?

I drove down to the Cultybraggan Camp from sunny Polmont to ensure I left the start line at the earliest possible time – so it was an early kick off. Thankfully the roads were clear and I’d gotten up in time to get ready properly and have breakfast – something that often eludes me pre-race and I always pay the price for it later. Sadly my early morning coffee had not worked other things loose so that might become a problem later in the race (but I did have my tissues with me).

Preparations had been somewhat disrupted that weekend by the GingaNinja having to work late on Friday night, my daughter spending the rest of Friday evening puking her guts up and my Saturday being taken up by the purchase and installation of a treadmil in my garage.

Still it was now Sunday morning and I had arrived, registration was swift and clear –  my number, tracker and  timing band were handed over. There were decent facilities at Cultybraggan Camp  (including what looked like the option of showers). The weather was reasonable, so as a consequence the runners were milling around the starting point rather than being huddled in vehicles or hiding in the registration hut.

The race should have kicked out at 7am, with the runners being allowed to leave anytime after this point – the only stipulation being that you were finished by 10pm – there was small delay to sending us out but nothing significant and with the shout ‘Go!’ we were sent on our merry way.

I felt that the pace of the runners ahead of me was going to be significantly faster than I, and I was right. A lack of training, fitness and being overweight meant that I was going to drop back pretty quickly, however, I didn’t really consider this a problem as I knew that my participation was more about completing the event than trying to get a decent time.

The route headed out of Cultybraggan and towards Comrie along a deep dark path along the River Earn – there were lovely tree roots everywhere, there was mud and there was waist high grass, stinging nettles and thorns that on a wet day would give you some strife. I bounded along the route here thinking that if the entire route was like this then we’d be in for a really good time. This lasted for a couple of miles before arring at the delightful, chocolate box town of Comrie, at 7.30 in the morning Comrie was a sleepy village with a few dog walkers out but later in the day the GingaNinja informed me that it very much became a hotbed of English tourists visiting the area – presumably to taste what she described as he best fish and chips she had ever had.

I digress.

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The route wound its way towards Loch Earn via an old railway line, much of which, for the first half, has been transformed to what can only be described as excellent cycle paths, while the back end is a little more hard packed trail but ultimately both sections were very runnable.

I found myself making rather better time than I imagined I was going to given that my longest run since returning to running has been 19km. Although I was near the back of the pack I really did not mind – I was enjoying the moderate solitude of the event and the surrounds were truly stunning and as I hadn’t been to the Trossachs before I considered this a real opportunity.

I bimbled along the route until arriving into the first checkpoint where I was greeted by some of the lovely race volunteers – water, timing point and importantly a toilet where on offer and I was grateful for the water as my own supply was being quickly exhausted by the conditions which felt a little muggy on this side of the loch (and I do poorly once conditions warm up)!

After a lovely little chat with the checkpoint team I headed out again with a greater understanding of the task at hand. Having trundled along one side of Loch Earn it was now time to travel the opposite side and head to the finish – with just the small matter of Ben Vorlich to negotiate.

Where the first section had been the old converted railway line, this track was the road that ran alongside the loch. Even though it was festooned with signs saying this was ‘walker and cyclist friendly’ I was unconvinced and therefore happy, whenever I met a vehicular foe, to step aside into the undergrowth to allow them to pass. This slowed my progress to the climb and had I been either braver or faster I would probably have made life a little tighter for the drivers, but I’m not, so I didn’t.

There was a gentle breeze around the water which made for pleasant running but still I was hugely grateful to see the checkpoint and my drop bag full of goodies. I helped myself to two chocolate milkshakes, a curry pie and a caramel Freddo (yes I know how to live it up) and also caught up with Ed who was looking for his first ultra finish.

He asked, ‘still going up?’

To which my reply was, ‘of course’.

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It was at this point that the race leader flew into the checkpoint and I felt that actually I must be doing okay as he was only an up and down faster than I was! and so with a cheery wave to the volunteers I headed up – little knowing what was awaiting me.

How much I regretted that decision on the way up – but I wasn’t to fully appreciate that until about 20 minutes into my ascent as realisation crept across my brow. As I started my ascent I noted the succession of runners all making their way down, all looking strong, all contenders for the lead if truth be told, whereas I looked out of place and exhausted – but regardless I moved relentlessly forward.

I had also noted that some of the runners where choosing to use poles – something that I had considered but then given I came to Scotland to learn how to race up mountains without poles it seemed silly to use them here, as this was a genuine test of my training in the nearby home hills. However, as I passed the RD by the side of the path, counting us on the mountain and off it, I regretted my poles decision but, I put in all the effort I could and even when the weather started to close in I simply put on my jacket and dug in.

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The path up Ben Vorlich is clear and easy to follow but it’s rocky, technically demanding and unrelentingly steep with a number of little false summits that lull you into a false sense of completion.

I lumbered my way up and around the loose rock, bruising the underside of my feet as I leaped over sections of tricky wet rock and landing upon sharp jagged stones. As each metre was added to my Suunto ascent total I knew I was slowly nearing the top and as the final peak to the top of the Ben presented itself I pushed hard into the mist – determined to make it.

Being scared of heights made this all the more terrifying at the final moment and I bent down to hands and knees as I thundered that final 10 metres of climb to touch the trig point and grab some photographs. I probably spent 10 minutes up there admiring the view before I remembered this was a race and quickly set off. I say quickly but when you look down from Ben Vorlich you realise just how steep it is and you are forced to slow down. Here I saw Ed for what would be the final time and for the first time I realised that if I wanted to finish anything other than last I would have to move quicker.

 

Once clear of the most severe of the descent I pressed harder down the hill, throwing myself at the rocks and refusing to slow until I saw the RD once more. ‘Alright?’ he said. ‘Got what I came for,’ I replied, ‘to climb Ben Vorlich’ and with that I said goodbye and pressed downwards to the checkpoint once more. My legs were like jelly when I hit the bottom but despite this I offered two young ladies (I’ll assume related to the marshalls) a race back to the checkpoint – which while a physical mistake was a brilliant boost mentally.

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I spent a few minutes with the checkpoint guys, again – properly awesome – and then kicked on knowing that the Ben Vorlich Ultra, for me, had gone from a test of the physical to a test of mental strength. My legs were battered to pieces but I knew they would make it – the problem was going to be knowing that I would be retracing my steps back to the finish and knowing that I had finished with the superb views of mountains. However, there was still the remainder of Loch Earn to negotiate and given how my body was feeling this too was going to be testing. I walked a couple of those road kilometres to try and reduce the effect on my back, hip flexor, right calf and bowels but when I got back to the turn for home I knew I had to start running again.

Thankfully it was about here that the rain kicks in properly and I felt quite content jumping back into my beloved Montane Minimus and I adopted the faithful run/walk strategy through the next 12km or so and it wasn’t until I knew I was in the home strait that I was willing to open the taps a little more and on the old railway I began to run. I smiled as I passed through Comrie and I upped the pace a little further through the trails, refusing to slow even when the waist high grass soaked my feet – I could smell home or so I thought.

The GPS route shouted at me, ‘you’re here’ but as I looked around I can assure you I wasn’t! Frantic I looked round for a sign, it looked so familiar but I was in meltdown – I called the GingaNinja and said, ‘I’m at Cultybraggan Farm but I don’t know where…’ and as I turned round I saw the old barracks in the distance. I’ll be honest I let out a little tear and then put my foot on the accelerator – I ran to the gates and saw my daughter waiting at the far end. I dare not disappoint and so I gave it all I had as she gave some welly to the cow bells.

As I approached ASK she asked to run those final few metres with me and so as a family we all crossed the line. Awesome. Never have I been so happy to finish a race.

Damn good but brutal fun.

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Key points

  • Distance: 60km (ish)
  • Profile: Deceptive and killer
  • Date: July 2019
  • Location: Loch Earn
  • Cost: £55
  • Terrain: Very Mixed
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

Route
This is an odd one as I really hate tarmac and there was a decent amount of tarmac here but there was also a decent amount of trail, the views for the most part were spectacular and the route would cover most bases for all but the most dogmatic of trail runners. Therefore I have to say I really, genuinely enjoyed it.

Obviously I was there for Ben Vorlich itself and so the low road that ignored it would not have interested me as much but the going up the mountain really makes this a race to do. That said the route without the mountain climb would make for a really good and fast short distance ultra with only a few hundred metres of climb across the 50km. Ultimately the route has a little bit of something for everyone. I’d say if you’re looking to move up from marathon then the 50km is ace, if you like a bit of tough as old boots climbing then the 60km will test you and if you like something else we’ll you’ll probably enjoy it anyway.

Organisation
I was supposed to run the Ochil Ultra last year with Wee Run Events but given I was moving up to Scotland that day I had to DNS. Therefore I was very much looking forward to meeting the guys as I’d heard the Ochils was a really nice, well organised event. It’s worth taking into account this was a first running of the Ben Vorlich Ultra and as an inaugural event though you expect the team to be ironing things out a little as they find their feet but actually it all seemed pretty smooth – yes there was a minor delay in setting off but this served only to make sure that as many people as possible set off together. The checkpoints were sound and there was water at every stop – what more do you need? The route signage was really good, the marshals were all brilliant, the supplied map was okay, there was tracking and a timing chip and most importantly there was a good base camp which meant your supporters didn’t have to freeze to death. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can bestow is that the RDs looked very much liked they cared about the race and the runners.

Awards
Nicely designed vest (would love a technical version of it, even if this was a race extra) and a cute bespoke wooden medal which was really nice. All the Scottish races I’ve done so far have avoided too many frills and this was no exception the focus has instead been on a couple of really nice items rather than lots of rubbish.

Value for Money
This is always very subjective but the Ben Vorlich Ultra was well organised and well executed. The bespoke medal, cheery volunteers and live tracking, for me, ensure this is well on the right side of good value. As runners you don’t always get to see how much hard work goes on behind the scenes but these guys earned much kudos and I have no hesitation in saying you’d feel it was money well spent if you signed up for the 2020 edition of the Ben Vorlich Ultra.

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Conclusion
Interesting route, great mountain to climb and a lovely medal for completing a tough ultra at the shorter end of the distances we run. Don’t be fooled though and do not underestimate the challenge of Ben Vorlich on the high or the low route as it will give you a kicking if you fail to show respect. The organising team and the volunteers were fabulous on the day and deserve a lot of credit for making it a smooth and enjoyable experience.

I had my issues on the day such as a lack of fitness and a tummy that has been giving me some grief recently (and a rusty bullet hole post race that is so hot I dare not go near it) but that has nothing to do with my conclusions about the race I just wanted to ensure that you, dear reader, understand that despite my relative lack of action both in running and blogging I’ll never forget to add a bit of poo to a race tale.

On a more serious note there are improvements that could be made – a bit more trail running on the route in the second half would make it easier on jelly legs and perhaps an FAQ section on the website to answer questions like, ‘can you use poles?’

Both of these I feel would elevate a really good race to an unmissable race. However, take nothing away from this event it was brilliant and it’s small tweaks rather than significant change that I feel would benefit everyone. The one significant change I might consider would be a single start time – I do like the starting with everyone else and think it might make it easier logistically for the race team but then I can see the flip side that it’s not a massive distance and so you are enabling runners from further afield to attend.

Ultimately I’d give this a go, it’s an unusual ultra but all the better for defying expectations and if I can offer one recommendation and that is I’d always take the high road – it really is worth it. And if it’s any measure of how much I enjoyed it, yes I would certainly go again.

You can find out more at benvorlichultra.run

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I’ve long come to terms with the fact I’m not just a terrible runner but a terrible ultra runner – even after half a century of completed ultra events I still find them hard and I still fail at them more than I would like.

With that in mind I had entered the Nocturnal Ultra and had decided to try and squeeze a post marathon distance in with just 6 hours available on the clock.

But lets roll back a week to the previous Saturday when I was full of delirium, cold and with a huge desire to hide inside a big fluffy blanket, running was the last thing on my mind. However, with the last few months having been so hectic I find ultra racing to be a bit of therapy and also provides the necessary bolt right up my arse that will set me up for exhausting period known as the final push up to Scotland.

And so I did no running in the two weeks before the event, instead each night I wrapped up in my big hoody and a waterproof jacket and went walking for an hour or more after work. And so when Saturday came I felt reasonable albeit with even less training done than normal in running terms.

Because the race started at 4pm I didn’t start my kit check and pack until about 11am on the Saturday and there was also a decent soak in the bath to have. Unfortunately there also the worst case of the pre-race shits too – could it have been the large quantity of houmous I had eaten less than 18 hours earlier? Perhaps.

Anyway a series of delays meant that I didn’t set off for the race until quite late and I was clearly rushing down the motorway rather than taking my preferred relaxed bimble. I had largely been hoping to arrive early so that I could avoid the second car park which I knew was going to be in a field of some description and my driving skill is not really that good and I was worried about getting in and getting out of said field. None of my fears were put to bed as I slid the little car around the wet grass attempting not to kill any of the very helpful marshals.

Thankfully with a minimum of fuss I managed to park up and grab my kit – only loosely concerned that the race was starting in 45 minutes and I was still in civilian dress and my kit was spread across a couple of drop bags.

Bugger.

I had never been to Fox Lake before and was surprised by just how much opportunity there was for outdoor fun both on and off water and I suspect I’ll be returning in a non-ultra runner capacity in the future. However, what is more important was that I made the tent for the pickup of my number with more than enough time and the process was both quick and painless. There was also a good number of marshals directing runners and supporters around the race village.

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Perhaps the only real problem of the race village is also one of the main benefits – the fixed Fox Lake facilities are fixed and there isn’t that much room to expand them and the amount of runners in the available space was quite a lot. But the benefits are that there was lots of cover and there were changing cubicles and showers and good food facilities. It’s a difficult balance to get right and the organisers gave a strong showing in moving runners around and getting them to the right place.

I slipped into the aforementioned changing cubicles and found myself hurriedly getting ready – probably a bit too hurriedly and when I strapped myself into my UD PB3.0 I realised I had packed it rather uncomfortably. Still with time against me I’d just have to adjust myself once we had set off – it wasn’t like I was aiming for the win.

There was a very full race briefing prior to the off and then the start line filled up with runners of all types. Seconds later we were off and into the beginnings of night – this was going to be an interesting event.

Much like myself many runners had decided to not run with a headtorch for the first lap presumably in an effort to conserve battery power and also to limit the effects of the tunnel vision that can occur when using a headtorch for extended periods. And in truth there was just about enough light to get us round the first fifteen minutes but when I reached the halfway point of the first loop I pressed the on switch – it was too dark too continue without light.

The lap that would make up the next six hours of my life was really quite pleasant and surprisingly varied, it was all very in and out of tree lined trails with a good dollop of slick mud that was only going to get more wretched the more the runners passed through it. The weather had been mostly unkind in the days leading up to the race but on Saturday the lords of wind and rain had decided to have the day off and so we were left with delightful evening running conditions.

I’m sure I was not the only one grateful that the heavier conditions would only come from the thousands of footprints that would litter the course and not from more wind and rain.

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The route started out nice and dry on good gravel track before sending you through a multi-coloured and illuminated forest section. The switchback then thrust you through a short downhill and along a faster straight section to the only real uphill before you hit the mile of mud as I came to know it. However, once you were clear of this it was mostly a straight run home and into the next lap. Although I shared the same thought of other runners that the final stretch back up to the start point felt much longer than the 800 metres suggested.

I was in good form and ran the first lap faster than I anticipated – very much getting caught up in the excitement of my fellow runners but also probably pacing myself against the relay runners – which is never a very smart idea.

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I had decided that I would stop on each lap and fill up on both Active Root – a drink that I knew wasn’t going to upset my stomach after my experience of it at Jedburgh – and the  Lucozade in my drop bag (which I was jealous of in Neil MacRitchies arsenal at the Tweed Valley Ultra a couple of weeks earlier).

I was being strict in my timings as I knew that I needed 9 laps for the ultra distance and to say that my second and third lap were ‘shit’ would be offensive to the word ‘shit’. Perhaps this is where the idea that I’m a rubbish runner comes from and therefore in my head I knew that I cold’t make it, I was doing the maths in my head – I’m going too slow.

Lap 4 came and went and I had managed to pick my feet up a little and I was taking Active Root on board like it was crack cocaine but I was so behind time that I’d be lucky to hit 7 laps within the time – not even the sound of the music barn was enough to get me going fast enough to put me on time.

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Bob Marshall Photos

I needed some incentive.

At the start of the next I called my daughter and when she asked where I was I replied, ‘I’m in a race.’ Such is the innocence of my four year old adventurer that she followed up her initial line of inquiry with, ‘are you winning? are you going to win a medal?’

‘I’m trying my best’

I knew this was a lie though and I knew that if I was to honestly claim that ultra medal I was really going to have to sort myself out, ‘listen you get to sleep,’ I said, ‘I’ll go and get the medal’.

Push UltraBoy, push!

And I did. I started to do something I haven’t done in years – I started overtaking people, I started to race but not against the other people on the course but against the clock, against my own fragile body. I ran the flats, I ran the mud, I ran the uphills and I opened the taps to give my legs some respite from the general crawl that makes up my ultra pace.

I hurtled through lap 6 and then lap 7 and I arrived on lap 8 with about 69 minutes remaining – all I needed to do was push one last time and I would be through the timing barrier and I could take all night if I needed to for lap 9 and so with thunder in my feet I flew through the HQ tent and pressed onwards to that medal that my daughter wanted me to earn.

It is rare for me to feel strong in a race (especially so late on) and even though the two fast laps had really drained me I was surprised by own invention as I convinced myself that I really had no time to get through to that final lap. I was slower on lap 8 than the previous couple but I was bearing down on the line to that final lap and I knew I would make it.

I stopped once more at the Active Root stand and had another short conversation with the two amazingly lovely ladies there and they simply gave me the thumbs up saying, ‘one more lap and we’ll see you back here in 20 minutes’.

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20 minutes later.
I was out on the course, I was about halfway round the final lap and I was counting down to the final moments of the six hours we were allocated and I was waiting for the fireworks display signal.

I stopped as I heard a countdown in the distance and then the fireworks went off. I had officially made it – all I had to do now was run it in and claim my medal and this I did with some joy in my heart. I ran through the covered forest just outside the race village and as I closed in on the final few hundred metres I raised my knees and committed the best sprint finish I could muster and with the wind in my sails I passed straight over the line and into the waiting arms of my medal!

Delightful.

Key points

  • Distance: 5km (ish) loops
  • Profile: Minor up and down
  • Date: December 2018
  • Location: Fox Lake, East Lothian
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Muddy trail
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route
The route was interesting and fun but ultimately it is a loop and if loops are not your thing then this race is not for you. It is worth noting though that the night time nature of the race gives the loop a less repetitive feel than similar daytime events. The added danger of the time and year and the potential for difficult weather conditions means that this route should not be under estimated. As well as an excellent event route this would make a wonderfully fast training route.

Organisation
Great marshals who were well drilled in what they had to and where they had to be.

I also liked the roaming nature of the marshals around the course – being set in the dark means that there is more potential for injury or trouble and the organisation clearly took this very seriously. Overall the organisation was top notch – especially given the occasionally cramped feel of the race village. The one thing that might benefit from some consideration is a slightly bigger drop bag stop for the solo runners as this was sometimes a little crowded but if any delay was had then it was very minor.

I’d also like to say a tremendous thank you to the two ladies at the Active Root table as their inspiring and occasionally arse kicking words really did keep me going.

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Awards
An excellent bespoke medal

Value for money
£50 seems about right for this, there is a lot of support and clearly lots of organisation that goes into making it happen and the medal was one of the more interesting ones I’ve had in recent times.

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Conclusion
10 weeks living in Scotland and 3 ultra marathons done since I arrived, even I can feel pretty good about that.

The Nocturnal Ultra is a fun end of year event to keep you running but that perhaps does it a disservice. This is a great event that might be the culmination of a years hard training and if you’re looking a trail run that is fast and tough enough then maybe this is perfect for you.  The event has a little bit of everything and the six hour time limit really gives it an edge that means you have to keep moving, especially if you’re not as quick as you once where. And the added bonus is that the location was lovely and it was close enough to Edinburgh to be accessible.

So could I happily recommend the Nocturnal Ultra?

Very much so.

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Post Jedburgh I felt a little bit weird, I had done so little training in the past year but had finished and felt surprisingly strong. I was, and remain confident, that I could have run Jedburgh significantly better and if I could just get settled properly in sunny Scotland then I might finally develop the time to commit to running.

And so there was an opportunity to add a November ultra to my schedule after pulling out of the 135 mile Rebellion. There was no way that I could have risked myself on such a significant distance given the state I find my body in and the level of running I am at.

However, I have been wanting to try High terrain events for a little while now and so the opportunity to run the now relatively local ‘Tweed Valley Ultra’ was too good to miss.

I got up at about four in the morning, showered and slapped on a tub full of Vaseline around the nether regions (having had a few problems during Jedburgh). I was determined that this was going to go well – I even applied a little to the toe tips as I’d had some serious blisters for the first time in years during the three peaks and wanted to avoid that as I suspected the Tweed Valley was going to be a tougher test.

The drive down from Edinburgh was nice and easy but being on my own for ultras is a new thing and I knew that I would also have to drive back on dark and narrow roads and that is something I’m going to have to get used to as I increase my activity up here. However, after a few minutes of driving aimlessly round the Glentress Visitor Centre I found the signage that I had missed when I first arrived.

I was, as usual, early – thankfully I prefer to be excessively early rather than a minute late and the facilities of the visitor centre were open to the runners and it was both warm and comfortable with breakfast available for those of those that could stomach it. I had made the mistake of taking my coffee too late before I’d left and was forced into visiting the little boy’s room for my pre-race delivery of the galloping trots. I can thankfully report that there was lots of loo roll and a warm toilet seat – a real treat compared to some of my pre-race toilet experiences.

I trotted over to the race registration for which the process was nice and easy (a necessity at 6.30am), name, number and grab a race t-shirt. Once I had collected my rather comfortable Tweed Valley t-shirt and grabbed some more hot coffee I took a seat and looked around to take in some of the faces that I might later be running alongside. I knew that Neil MacRitchie, John Munro and Fiona Rennie were running – all of whom I had first met at the Skye Trail Ultra a couple of years ago. I’ve run into Neil subsequently (most recently at Jedburgh) and John and I have run in the same races a couple of times but never really at the same pace as he’s a damn fine ultra marathoner and I’m well… me.

Anyway, I failed to run into anyone I knew and was concerned that this was likely to be a bit of a lonely race. I’d undoubtedly be near the back and I wonder if being cut adrift from fellow competitors is one of the things that has resulted in several of my race failures. However, with a few minutes to go I headed up to the start line, a final wee stop and I ran into a chap who had run the Skye Trail Ultra the year after I did it and we had a little laugh about the ever wonderful Jeff Smith and how we had found that particular race.

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David (I think his name was) was going to be going much quicker than I was and so when the race started we all thundered down the short path to the trail. Much to my own surprise I was keeping up with the middle of the pack runners quite happily but knew that it was never going to last and so into the first climb I made the conscious decision to slow down and go into slow grind mode. One of the things that I knew awaited us in the early part of the event was a climb, what I had not expected was quite how early it began or how long it would last.

As we started to climb I could feel the energy being sapped out of my legs and that was something that I was aware would come to bite me later (or perhaps sooner) in the race. The good news was that the trails were good, the weather was being exceptionally pleasant and the ground was very runnable, the bad news was that I was going to struggle to find an excuse as to why I was running so badly.

One thing I did note which I thought ‘’bugger’ about was that there were a number of the runners with poles safely stowed in their vests. Perhaps it is being in Scotland but I’ve been trying to give up the running poles as up here they mostly are not allowed but, being honest, even as we reached the summit of the first climb I was wishing that I had them. At the top I could feel my thighs burning and that was a sensation I had not expected quite so quickly – still this did not stop me from hitting the downhill with all the energy I could muster and running down was a lot of fun. The trail was still good, the conditions were still good, the light was up and you could throw yourself amongst the rocks and the roots and know that a confident approach would get you out of it safely.

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The exit to the forest brought us to the river (let’s take a guess at the Tweed) and from here it was good running and I should have been going as fast as possible but I was somewhat hampered by a need to have my guts explode out of me. Sadly it was a little exposed and so I was forced into deep breathing and scampering along clenching my arse cheeks! Thankfully the first of the four checkpoints was nearby and with it was the opportunity to dip in to the toilet. I think I need to note to down my pre-race preparation as this isn’t the first time I’ve been caught a bit short mid-race!

Anyway enough of the traditional gut rot… with that clear I was now on my way and feeling much better about the race. The thing I took in was just how beautiful the Tweed Valley was and with the mist drifting around the route, especially in the early hours, there was an even more spectacular eerie beauty. However, it is worth noting that while there was a majority of the route on trail there was a noticeable amount of tarmac in the first 20km which my long standing injuries did not enjoy. Thankfully I was soon upon checkpoint 2 and I ate and drank my way through a load of flapjacks and better than that, about a litre of Irn Bru (a theme for the race).

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After a few sunny minutes at checkpoint 2 I headed out and took aim at the biggest climb on the route (Minch Moor) – in real terms only about 400 metres but it felt like a lot more, especially in the first section of the climb where it was surprisingly steep. Once at the top though it became an undulating trail and once again the Tweed Valley offered stunning views in all directions. Ian, a chap I had met earlier in the day had explained how wonderful the Valley was, and he right.

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The undulation was now in my favour and I was racing towards the turn off point for the 65km or would it be the turn off point for the 50km? Would I drop down to the lower distance option?

It was then that a race angel came thundering past me in the shape of John Munro.

As he went past me in his lurid Compressport calve sleeves a part of me recognised him but I could not for the life of me place the face. We exchanged race pleasantries as people do but then he turned around and called out my name at which point I put two and two together and we had a lovely little chat. He was on the 50km and going past me at pace and I did not want the rest of the 50km to go past me and so when I reached the turn off point I jauntily pressed on past the lovely marshall and once more began ascending.

After a few minutes I turned around and stared back into what was increasingly becoming a lonely and empty trail. I assumed I was now at the back of the field and wondered if it was possible to run the final 26 miles alone. I opened a caramel Freddo and chomped down on the mildly melted chocolate, turned on my heel and continued to shuffle forward.

It seemed that the ghost of Skye was not yet done with me though and shortly after I had finished my Freddo I heard the sound of footsteps behind me. Surely I was going quicker than the sweeper – my time really was not that bad (not that good either to be fair). I shot a glance over my shoulder and, blow me, I recognised the silhouette of one of my favourite ultra runners…

Neil MacRitchie.

I’m sure he didn’t recognise me at first but that did not deter me from asking, ‘are yo stalking me?’ I knew it would be a short term mental reprieve but it was just the kind of boost I needed and we started to run together for a bit. Neil being the ultimate ultra runner is always full of good advice about races, events, logistics and well just everything and therefore it is always a pleasure to chat with him for a bit.

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Together we reached the Three Brethren which was an unexpected delight and we were making pretty good time. Unusually though neither of us had managed to shake the other and suddenly 10km had passed and we were drifting into the checkpoint. I had been feeling a little bit rough and ready in the last 20 minutes and so took the opportunity to drink lots of Irn Bru. We speculated once again that we might be bringing up the rear but we saw a fellow runner at the checkpoint and suddenly we there was a sense that we might not be the final finishers.

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Post giggle with the volunteers we headed out again – a little bit of tarmac, ruinous for me but as Neil identified, change is as good as a rest (NB. he’s wrong about that – a rest is always better than change). The route for the most part here was reasonably flat with bits of undulation here and there. We adopted a fartlek approach to the running or wherever we saw a hint of a downhill.

It was around here that things got weird when I ran into  a web developer that my company are hiring to help build the businesses new website. I hadn’t recognised him at all until he called my name out and then it took me a second to figure out who it was (we’d only met the once) but it did make me go, ‘weird!’

Anyway with the fartlek in full swing and my Irn Bru power disappearing faster than a Usain Bolt hundred metres I was really struggling once again and I suggested that we were far enough in that I was not going to DNF and that Neil should continue without me. However, he gave me ‘the talk’ and we pushed on to the checkpoint.

The Irn Bru Saga

Holy poo! How much Irn Bru can one man drink? You’d think I’d been sponsored by them – I probably downed another litre or so of what I described as Ambrosia and I consumed several delicious pieces of flapjack. This was intended to power me through the final phase and I had no intention of stopping now but Neil was looking strong and I really was not.

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Neil let me walk off my Irn Bru burping as we headed back towards the river and then explained he was going to employ a step count for running but after the first 100(200) running steps I could tell I was done and I insisted that he go on without me. No amount of Irn Bru was going to get me through this and with the light fading it seemed rather unfair to ruin the finish time for both of us. Thankfully though I was willing to give the step count a final crack and I found a second wind and the pace we were moving at was bumbling but steady. In no time at all we were through the little housing estate, past the café and onto the path by the river.

I finally knew were I was but I also knew that the downhill at the start was now set to become a terrifying, in the dark, race to the finish.

We managed to avoid putting our headtorches on until we reached the forest and the climb. It was here I felt I could smell the finish and found myself reaching for another gear as I pressed the pair of us into a reasonably pacey death march. Climb, climb, climb I could hear in my head. We had almost reached the summit when we stopped briefly for a hint of respite and in the distance we both thought we saw the twinkling of a headtorch – this was all we both needed to make sure we did not drop the pace.

BOOM. We were off.

We pushed onwards but more importantly downwards – all the time watching my Suunto as it passed 65km and then 66km and then 67km. I was dog tired and sore and all I wanted was the finish. The down to the finish would have been challenging enough in the light but in the dark it was frustratingly challenging and neither of us wanted to take a tumble at this late stage. In the distance between the trees though we finally saw the twinkling of lights and realised we had made it – we tumbled down to the bottom of the final rise whereupon I insisted we jog over the finish line.

And laughing as we crossed the finish line is all you can hope for when you’ve just survived the awesome Tweed Valley Ultra. Great race.

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Key points

  • Distance: 65km (68km)
  • Profile: Deceptive and beautiful
  • Date: November 2018
  • Location: Tweed Valley (Near Peebles)
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Trail
  • Tough Rating: 2.5/5

Route
The route for the Tweed Valley Ultra was quite interesting in that the trail bits where spectacular and some of the good paths/tarmac were pleasant. If you have never been to the Tweed Valley then you’d really enjoy the sights and in fairness if you were a a regular in the Tweed Valley I’m confident this will take you on new and exciting paths.

The changing nature of the surfaces made this a mostly runnable event although having a steep climb at the start did sap the energy from my legs and meant I felt like I was constantly playing catch-up with own fitness levels.

Organisation
Fabulous volunteers and marshals who all  had a massive smile for the runners and for whom nothing seemed too much trouble. As for organisation this has to be rated as top notch – everything worked. The website, the GPX file, the map and the pre race event notes were mostly comprehensive and the on the day organisation at both the start and the finish is to be highly commended.

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Awards
A bespoke medal and a good quality t-shirt (and as much Irn Bru as I could drink).

Value for money
£50 is an excellent price for this well organised and friendly ultra from a company that is attracting both the seasoned ultra runners as well as first timers. If you fancy spending a few pennies with High Terrain Events then you will not be disappointed

Mentions
I would very much like to say thank you to the awesome Neil MacRitchie for always being there for his fellow ultra runners no matter the state they find themselves in.

Conclusion
I’ve now been living in Scotland for 8 weeks, I arrived the day I should have run the Ochil Ultra, I ran Jedburgh with no training and now I’ve completed the Tweed Valley with nothing more than a tenacious attitude and a lot of Vaseline. This is a great race and for me it was made all the better by coming across lots of lovely ultra runners. High Terrain should take pride in the fact that they are putting on a really, really good event, suitable for all levels of ultra runner and I am now seriously considering Kielder for 2019.

Well done guys and thanks.

Having run lots and lots of races I’ve come across lots and lots of race organisation. It’s fair to say that mostly race organisation has been really good but occasionally you do find that there are ones that stink to high heaven.

However, this post looks to celebrate the ones I’ve found the absolute best and if good race management and strong organisational skills are your thing then maybe you should consider these guys

Extreme Energy (XNRG)
Organisers of: Pilgrims Way, Pony Express, Amersham Ultra

I’d heard so many good things about XNRG that I didn’t think it could possibly be true. However what I noticed about my running with them was how they had managed to absorb all the ‘friendly’ elements of small, local races where everyone knows each other and scale it up to ultra distance. I recall arriving into the Amersham Ultra and everything being in the right place, it was in a great location and everyone knew what they needed to do and outwardly they showed no stress. Anecedotal evidence from others who have run with them confirm that is pretty much the case all over an XNRG event.

Best things: no fuss, well drilled, experienced team, great attitude
Website: www.xnrg.co.uk

Challenge Running
Organisers of: Monarchs Way, St Peters Way, Stort 30

I ran the St. Peter’s Way in 2014 and it has long left a lasting impression on me – this is partly because Lindley Chambers is a rather unforgettable chap but there were other reasons. I recall rocking up to the SPW and bumping into Ian Braizer for the first time since we’d both crashed out of the Thames Gateway 100, lining up for an actual kit check and a race briefing that felt more like being told off. However, the pre race organisation was on point and the marshalling crews across the course were absolutely outstanding and often old hands at the ultra game. The aid stations were spot on and it all ran with a kind of military precision. There is much to admire about the way Challenge Running do races and if you’re looking for tough, well thought out, well executed but ultimately achievable adventures then they are well worth a look.

Best things: very experienced team, pure ultra running experience, great aid station food
Website: www.challenge-running.co.uk

SVN
Organisers of: Ranscombe Challenge, Viking Way Challenge, Cakeathon

There are people who might (justifiably) suggest that organising looped events is relatively straight forward. 1 aid station, a few direction signs and off you go. I tend to believe that the reason this opinion exists is because race organisers like Phoenix and Saxons, Vikings & Norman’s make a difficult task look easy. When you roll up to a SVN event you’re treated like an adult, Traviss and Rachel are both hugely experienced runners who offer sage words of advice and an understanding of what motivates runners (distance, routes, cake and medals). The SVN events are always a joyful experience and the organisation is the right balance of knowing you’ve got a reasonably experienced group of attendees and the need to ensure nobody gets lost.

The looped nature of the events means aid stations are never far away and the you’re never more than a few hundred metres from another runner who will offer moral support if you’re in need. SVN has community spirit written all over it and this combined with good routes, excellent aid stations and wonderful race directors make this an easy choice to run.

Best things: Community spirit of the events, the medals and the ridiculously overfilled goody bags.
Website: www.saxon-shore.com

Ultra Trail Scotland/Find Your Adrenaline
Organisers of: Isle of Arran Ultra, Arran 25km

If you’re running in autumn or winter, if you’re running up Scottish mountains and if you’re unsure what you’ve let yourself in for then you really want to ensure that the organisers of a race have got your back. Find Your Adrenaline who organised the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran race proved to be the best race organisers I’ve ever come across. I attended the inaugural event and saw a small team of race organisers bringing together two very different sets of runners (many who had come from Spain and the local runners). I witnessed the organisers going through the route in a variety of languages, the pre race meal was amazing, the support we were shown in putting an easy roof over heads was brilliant and then getting everyone to the start line was a very simple no fuss affair. There were no bells, no whistles, no silly gimmicks – this would be a hardcore race and it demanded the best of its organisers.

We’d been given GPX files well in advance, we’d been talked through the trouble spots on the route and as we all made the climb to Goatfell and light was coming up I think we all felt well supported and like this was going to be a great day out. When race director Casey Morgan though started sending runners back because conditions were so bad this was proof positive that safety was foremost on the minds of the organisers. Nobody could blame him or the rest of the team – nature can be tough. The brilliant thing though was that the support didn’t end here, once we had descended the mountain the team kicked into action and provided food, drink and anything else we could want. I have nothing but the highest of praise for the team under extremely difficult and disappointing (for them as much as the runner) conditions. I’m glad to see they didn’t see this as the end and if you fancy a real challenge then you should consider a crack at Arran this June.

Best things: the routes, runner safety, runner care
Website: www.ultratrailscotland.com

Run Walk Crawl
Organisers of: SW100, SW50, Gower 50

Organised, friendly and well thought out are how I’d describe the Run, Walk, Crawl experience. Because of dropping down to the SW50 from the 100 I had a bit of time to kill and so joined the support team handing out numbers and registering runners. This was an awesome experience and sitting behind the table was almost as much fun as the running. The rugby club that the organisers had hired out was a brilliant location as it meant we had hot showers (pre and post race), somewhere to change and a decent place to camp too. There was a town and a train station a short hop away and it meant that the runners had access to everything they might need. Race morning saw coaches laid on to the start and it all felt easy (which as the runner is something you only appreciate if something goes wrong). On the course there was great support from the crews, food and drink options were plentiful and the route even passed a Co-op for an ice-cream stop (truly something for everyone).

Best things: understanding of runners needs, well organised staff, excellent setup.
Website: www.runwalkcrawl.co.uk

Extra Sports
Organisers of: SainteLyon

I don’t do many mass participation events because I simply don’t enjoy them and feel that they get far too much coverage (looking at you London Marathon). However, the SainteLyon with a total of 14,000 runners over 4 different distances is an exception I make.

The race is a bit of French classic that has been running for over 60 years but despite this the race remains reasonably anonymous in the UK and English speaking countries. And so to why I would consider Extra Sports do brilliant at race organisation, the first is the language barrier – many of the volunteers and staff are well versed in English and other languages, but that isn’t the pleasant surprise – the surprise is the fact that many can spot you as a foreigner before you’ve even spoken and are incredibly helpful. The rest of my experience with Extra Sports and the SainteLyon was equally well organised – the main hall were registrations take place is split between the race village and the number hand out. Identity checks are swift and number allocations equally so but it’s a very human process despite the number of people involved. Then there are the logistics are transporting thousands of runners to the start line, returning bags to the finish line and ensuring that everyone is suitably comfortable, fed and watered in the run up to a race start at midnight in the middle of December. Extra Sports go the extra kilometre.

On course it’s the same brilliant event management – in the icy unmanned sections there are quad bikers going back and forth to help runners who might be injured. Last time I saw a runner being airlifted out (I assume due to injury) and every care was shown here. Aid stations despite being incredibly busy were never once short of food or drink and the people manning these incredibly busy aid stations looked like they were working harder than the runners. Truly epic efforts, truly brilliant.

Best things: Organisation of transport for a shedload of runners, really well considered logistics at start and finish.
Website: www.saintelyon.com

Ultra Running Ltd
Organisers of: The Green Man Ultra

Ultrarunning Ltd, organisers of the Green Man, Malvern Hills and the Midnight Express to name but a few boast a fine reputation for fun, inventive and inspiring ultra marathons that you always fancy a second (or more) crack at. My first experience was a mud soaked bumble around Bristol known as the Green Man Ultra. We were lucky I think that we had a fine day for it which allowed runners to congregate outside the main registration hall. Numbers/colours were allocated according to your distance (30 or 45 miles and whether you were being fed on route or not) a theme that continued into the medals as well.

Once off I found that the course was easy enough to follow and you were never very far from another runner despite the relatively small field. What was a surprise was just how delicious the aid station food was – including the delightful jam butties! The crews were plentiful for this one, this meant that no runner was waiting around for very long for a cup of tea!

I rolled in reasonably late from this one but that didn’t stop there being a tremendous reception and more importantly there was still some of the truly delicious chilli remaining! (a common occurrence when you’re not at the front of the race is that post race food has often disappeared – but not here). Facilities at the end were ace and the lovely certificate I was presented with (with my name written and spelt correctly) was a genuinely lovely finishing touch. This race, the experience, the organisation and the medal will long be remembered

Best things: Food at the finish, food on the course, really enthusiastic volunteers.
Website: www.ultrarunningltd.co.uk

Obviously there are lots of other incredible organisers of races, Vigo Running Club and Harvel Hash Harriers who put together the Tough Love 10 are outstanding, the chaps behind the Marlborough Downs Challenge are incredibly well organised and I’ve rarely met any organisers that have done a bad job. You’d certainly be assured that all race directors go into these things to provide great race experiences because making money isn’t the reason you do it and they want to most of all make sure that you all get round safely having had a load of fun.

You’ll all have your favourite races, you’ll all have your favourite race organisers and my list is just an opportunity to look into something new, in the knowledge that the organisers involved with these companies offer the best race organisation and experiences I’ve had.

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‘I’m not a people person, it’s fair to say I mostly don’t like people – which I guess is why I’m here and not on the South Downs Way 50 today – I wanted a race where I can be mainly unknown and anonymous’. A comment I made to one of the runners at the wonderfully fun Testway Ultra this weekend – a race I’m very glad I attended, despite the state I find myself in now.

Let’s roll back to about 5.57am the morning of the race as I jumped behind the wheel of ‘Spusum’ my little Aygo with ASKruns and the GingaNinja in tow. As we thundered out of Kent I remember saying to myself that ‘I mustn’t let the trauma of driving force my shoulders up around my ears’ but that didn’t happen, I recall saying to myself ‘lucky that my cold had cleared up for the race today’ it hadn’t and at the first gear change as I felt my hamstring a bit I remembered how destroyed the Silkin Way has left me. Let’s say that I had a few concerns about my appearance at the Testway Ultra.

However, with the Fellsman a mere three weeks away, the West Highland Way Challenge only seven weeks away and the Arran ultra only ten weeks away I felt I needed to take the risk of running a reasonable distance event that had a decent element of toughness.

Welcome to the Testway Ultra.

On paper (or rather GPX) this doesn’t look tough at all, there’s more than enough trail (although a couple of significant tarmac sections), the elevation profile suggested that although not flat there were no hideous climbs, conditions were a bit muddy but nothing that any trail marathon or ultra runner wouldn’t have seen before and so you’d go into this thinking that it was a pleasant 44 mile trot.

Ha! The Testway Ultra has a few surprises up its sleeves though to ensure that you were getting good value for money and in short, I can happily report that this was awesomely good fun.

When I arrived at the start I grabbed my number and then went and hid on the back seat of the car away from the rain, dipping out only when the toilet queue had subsided enough to squeeze out a pre race number one, but sadly not a number two (a problem that would come back to bite about 15 miles later in the race). The start was well organised, very efficient and all the runners were slowly marshalled to the start line at the top of the hill on time and in good order. Here I met the amazing runner @TonySharkey who I’ve known a bit through Twitter and I find it’s always lovely to meet the people who you look at with great admiration. He was clearly going to hammer out a time that would make me look like I wasn’t moving but we chatted for a few minutes and when the start came we wished each other well.

For the record he did hammer out a fantastic a time!

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As for me I set off at an unusually swift pace and given that my training has taken something of a nosedive of late this seemed an odd choice. However, the beautiful setting and the rolling vistas ahead of me ensured I was in good spirits as I bimbled my way through the miles. The weather was being cool but dry or as I would like to say, the weather was being kind and the route was very runnable. This was a far cry from the tarmac trails of two weeks ago, my hamstring and groin were in seventh heaven…

Well for the first miles…

I’ve come to the conclusion that I must have a self destruct button somewhere as about five miles in I felt all the angst of pain running through my back simply explode. There wasn’t an ‘ache, ache, ache, bang’ – no there was just ‘bang’. I looked around at my surroundings and pressed heavily into the area where there was pain – it was tender, it was sore and the resting on my back of my last comfortable race vest was causing shooting pains of agony. Bugger.

I looked down at my watch and saw that the number of kilometres run was a mere 8.56 – some way short of the required 70(ish)km. I slowed for a while to gather my thoughts… injury, Fellsman, West Highland Way, another DNF, pain, early into the race…

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I decided that I had to at least checkpoint 1, if nothing else rescue would require longer than it would take to hobble to a limp CP1 finish. I did however promise myself that if I arrived into the checkpoint in good time then I would push on through to CP2.

Of course, I ended up arriving into the first stop in good time and after two cups of cola I headed out quickly (basically before I convinced myself to DNF) and issuing a million thanks to the volunteers and supporters. The issue here was that the first checkpoint wasn’t 10 miles away from the start, it was about 9 miles and second checkpoint wasn’t 10 miles either this was at least a couple extra and this resulted in a problem.

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Checkpoint 1 to checkpoint 2 was where it started to heat up, temperature wise and trouble wise. The cold I’d been recovering from added fuel to my already injury laden self. I was taking on lots of fluid but I soon realised that my 600ml wasn’t going to be sufficient and began rationing myself. Thankfully I had the lovely course to encourage myself with and a lovely runner called Dave, who would be my sometime companion over the next few miles but with my back in pieces, water running low I did wonder what the hell else could go wrong! It seems that in my head somebody was listening and decided that, about 15 miles in, that I needed a loo stop but with no really discreet place to go I decided to amble ever forwards – a decision I would regret long into the night as my efforts in the Vaseline department had been left rather wanting and lets put it like this the rusty bullet hole seemed more like a fresh shooting had happened in the chaffing department.

However, all this said my spirits were surprisingly good and this was mainly because I knew that I would reach checkpoint 2 long after it was sensible to continue – sadly I didn’t. I was well within the time I had allocated to myself and as I arrived at checkpoint 2 I felt a pang of, ‘oh god I’ve still got another marathon to go’. The great thing was that the company I’d been keeping to this point had been lovely and the ace guys and gals at the checkpoint were amazing – listening to my endless list of aches of pains as I munched my way through their jelly beans and cola.

Still the weather was fine, I had survived my water shortage and it seemed rather silly to drop out now. For a little while I picked up the pace again to see if a different stride pattern might help alleviate the stress on my back (it didn’t) and I bimbled my way past another lovely volunteer (all of whom I tried to have a little joke or three with as they clapped and cheered me on). I strode purposefully up the hill where I found another lovely volunteer giving me directions down towards a river section, ‘6 miles of flat canal like running’ he promised. I’m sure he meant this as a kindness but to me the flat would be a killer and as I stomped off down the hill I began a slow and steady trudge towards the third checkpoint.

I decided that as time was on my side and I wasn’t going to be winning any prizes for my pace I’d slow down for this section and save my legs for what I suspected would be a more difficult back end.

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This turned out to be the first really good decision I had made and I strode purposefully through the route with bits of running thrown in for good measure and though there had been a few miles of running by a river and busy roads the route remained mostly reasonably interesting and there were enough passers-by offering thumbs up to feel like a nice atmosphere on what was fast becoming my sweaty evening stroll.

Soon though I drifted into the third checkpoint, the bad news was that cola was in short supply and but I had thankfully arrived before the glut of runners behind me (sorry guys it was me who finished the cola off). It was here that I met the runner who defined the remainder of my race and helped ensure that I finished my latest foray into the ultra marathon world. However, first let me mention the lovely Louise (a lady I had met at the start of the event) and we crossed paths again when she caught me up at around mile 30, we found ourselves running together for a little while and chewing the fat over the ridiculousness of our race schedules and the silly things we often find ourselves doing. However, somewhere along the line I lost Louise as I had also been chatting with Kain and Francesca (I did check the spelling of the names of both of my fellow runners!) the other two runners who I’d fallen in with.

As I said earlier at the third checkpoint I’d met the runner who would pretty much define my race and this was the very wonderful Francesca. A lady with a quick wit, a cheery and chatty personality and a desire to finish. It seemed we were both travelling at roughly the same speed and so found ourselves developing a groove through the tough final stages. Our chatter and laughter pushed us through the worst of the mud and the water and whenever things would get a bit tough we’d throw out a bit of a funny line or words of encouragement. I’ve been Francesca – new to the ultra world but keen and determined to finish, she reminded me a little bit of Elaine, that I ran the latter stages of the Green Man Ultra (read about that here) with and that race and that partnership had been a real favourite of mine. This experience wold turn out to be just as rewarding, hopefully for both of us, I can certainly say that having the support of a fellow runner and somebody to take my mind off the hideous pain my back was in gave me all the drive I needed to push on. It’s fair to say that my running improved alongside Francesca and I found myself willing to push on that little bit faster whenever we were able. It is also true that the latter stages of the race though were my favourite as I love nothing more than sloshing about in the mud and the crap, picking my way through the route and bouncing through the worst of the mud, sending it cascading up and down my legs!

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As the miles came crashing down we once again felt that the accuracy of the checkpoint locations wasn’t quite as up to scratch as the rest of the race! We rolled into the final checkpoint with Suunto reading as less than 3km to the finish but with the volunteers reporting that there were 3 miles remaining – the truth is that it was somewhere in between, but when you’re tired and sore all you want is some assurance that you need to go no further than is absolutely necessary. Once more at the checkpoint I played the roll of flirty jester, offering a nod and wink to the lovely volunteer with the wonderful beard and twinkled my smile at the lady I’d joked earlier could have taken my place in the race – there should always be time for a bit of fun with the volunteers.

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Anyway, we set off for home, the knowledge that we would make it before dark was also handy as one of us was short of a headtorch and I was concerned how we might fare if we lost the light before the end of the race. Thankfully we ran across the wooden path over the marshland in excellent time and took a few seconds as we re-entered civilisation to ensure we were going the right way. A gentleman began walking towards us, very nicely dressed I noted and gave s a hearty thumbs up and welcome, ‘300m and you’re there’ – I could have kissed him, instead I simply hugged him.

As we headed off I recounted the tale of Jimmy McKenna, the only person that ever served as running coach to me (I was a mere 7 years old) and one lesson has always stuck with me, ‘it doesn’t matter how you’ve run, always finish strong’ and so with uncharacteristic ease I slipped into full throttle mode with Francesca and we hurtled towards the finish and ensured that we crossed the line together.

What a day.

Key points

  • Distance: 44 miles
  • Profile: Deceptively challenging
  • Date: April 2018
  • Location: Coombe Gibbet
  • Cost: £50
  • Terrain: Trail (and a some tarmac)
  • Tough Rating: 2/5

Route: The route was really lovely in places with nothing unpleasant (well except for a flat six miles in the middle but I think most people would enjoy this as a respite for the undulation). The views in parts were beautiful and the trail was mixed up enough that it never felt like it was going to get dull. The excellent thing about the route was that the good parts were spread throughout the route and the less interesting parts were equally spread. Sometimes a race can have all of its excitement in a very confined space but the route of the Testway is fun and varied. It is also much tougher than the GPX file suggests and I saw many a tough race shirt on the start line (Dragons Back, Centurion and MdS finishers) so go into this expecting a fun and rewarding day at the office.

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Organisation: Organisation can be a tough one to get right, especially on a point to point when you have to ferry runners to the start early in the morning but Andover Trail Runners showed real skill in handling the event and the runners. Number collection was easy and the on the course volunteers who manned all the major road crossings were awesome. The provided GPX file was a welcome addition to the race pack and the on course markings were pretty good mostly (although it was noted that towards the end there were significantly less of them to aid direction – though signs do get removed by scallywags periodically).

Support: The team at the start, the finish and on the course was excellent, thank you to all of you. The volunteers were amazing and the support crews were in fine cheer for all the runners not just their own. The checkpoints were pretty good with a decent selection of savoury and sweet items, the only minor downside was the running our of cola, but I’m sure this will be rectified for the next running. The only other comment I would add is that it might be worthwhile considering adding water stop(s) to some of the road crossings – on a hotter day 10+ miles between checkpoints can be a long distance to go if you’ve run low on water and the road crossing guys were perfectly positioned as a spare water stop – just a thought.

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Awards: Lovely medal, some awesome photographs and a great day. What more do you need?

Value for money: £50? Bargain.

Mentions: I’m not normally one for special mentions however thanks to Tony, Dave, Louise, Rachael, Louise and especially Francesca who made the Testway Ultra a really fun event for me. Oh and thanks to Sam Arnold (and the other wonderful photographer whose name eludes me) who was taking photographs of the runners and captured me doing my, ‘staring into the middle distance’, ‘moulding of a fool’, ‘Hamlet cigars advert’ and ‘Heavy Landing’.

 

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Conclusion: I’d run this again, I’d want to train a bit better for it but the whole experience left me with a generally positive feeling, the distance wasn’t so far for it be a main spring ultra marathon but it would serve as a truly great warm up for a 75 or a 100. It wold also be a great step up for trail marathon runners who fancy a nice big meaty step up. The guys at Andover Trail Runners deserve a lot of credit for putting on an event that gave so much joy and I hope it runs for many years to come. Check out Andover Trail Runners at their website

Now the big question is will my back and other issues recover enough in time for The Fellsman and the West Highland Way Challenge? Well that remains to be seen – until next time, adios and have fun running!

Gallery: Now available at ultraboygallery.wordpress.com, my photographs (and those from the race photographers) from the event.

This is a story two years in the making as the moment I finished the SainteLyon in 2015 I knew I had found ‘my’ race. My experience was so incredibly positive that I knew I would return and when entries opened in April I was waiting with my debit card to hand ready to sign up. Experience had taught me that this was unnecessary but I wanted my place confirmed as quickly as possible and within a few hours I had also uploaded the medical certificate from the UTBCN, booked my flights and begun the search for accommodation.

For more detail on how you go about the logistics can I recommend you read the 2015 report, which goes into much detail about that kind of thing.

The first half of my running year had gone quite well, finishing with a great finish at the South Wales 50 and despite failure at MIUT I was feeling tremendously positive overall going into the summer race break. However, the death of my partners mother, illness and injuries to my back meant that my return to training and racing was hampered quite badly. I didn’t show up for the return of the London to Brighton, although I rocked up to the start of the Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran this was cancelled mid race due to terrible weather conditions and I deferred my place at The Rebellion because of a hideous chest infection and a lack of preparation. This all meant that my return to the SainteLyon was incredibly undertrained in fact only just returned to training and in no way ready to face this wonderful course.

Regardless I wasn’t going to miss out and on Friday, 1st December I ambled along to the hideous Luton Airport and took the short flight to the delightful Lyon St Exupery Airport a short hop on the Rhône Express took me into the centre of the city (30mins), I bought a 72hour combined Metro, Tram and bus ticket (€15) and took the 3 minute metro ride to Saxe Gambetta where I would find my small but perfect AirBnB accommodation just two minutes from the station.

I dropped my bags down to be greeted by the sight of a Nespresso machine and some Belgian waffles and chocolate crepes! Merci Diep (the host). I grabbed a few bits like my passport and registration confirmation before heading straight out to the hall to collect my number. Another short hop on the metro and I was a five minute walk from where I needed to be – awesome.

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Security was still quite tight in France and there were bag and body searches before entry to the hall – which in light of recent history both in France and across Europe -makes sense. But once in the hall it was like a Mecca for all things trail running and I slowly wandered round deciding what I would spend some pennies on. It was lovely to see Oxsitis with a big stand and lots of products on show and while I may not wear them any longer Hoka also rolled into town with a decent showing.

Collection of my number was easy this year and I used my incredibly handy French phrase, ‘je ne comprends pas francais. parlez vous anglais?’ and I found that my French hosts once they knew I was English simply switched languages (something I am in awe of) though I did use my French language skills wherever possible. With my number collected I headed over to get some SainteLyon socks and my new much loved Buff!

And from this point I actually had some free time. I headed over to the huge shopping centre and picked up some provisions, did some late night sightseeing and then continued in this vein the following morning – touristing before settling down to an afternoon nap before the race. I then engaged in my now infamous pre race coffee ritual for a full bowel clearance and eventually I’d get round to loading up my kit up! It all seemed to be going far to smoothly.

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At about 6pm I headed down to the bus pick up point and joined the queue for one of the many buses to St Etienne. I remember in 2015 the bus was warm but the window had a drip running down it and I’d worked hard to ensure I didn’t get wet! This year the bus was a little chillier but the window didn’t leak and we arrived in good time and without incident. Security was speedy but thorough and as I had time to kill I grabbed some of the pre race snack goodies and went into the smaller of the two halls to see if I could catch a bit more sleep or at least rest. The hall was warm and filled with people but I had little trouble finding space and I folded a buff up and lay my head upon it – but I couldn’t sleep. The SainteLyon was effectively my Christmas present to myself and like a young boy I was desperate to open my present and get to running! Much like a Christmas Eve the following three hours dragged like the Hundred Years’ War! Still the hours did give me a vantage point for kit and people watching – the most interesting outfit I saw was a teenage mutant ninja turtle with full shell and this chap (as far as I know) ran the whole thing dressed like this. The STL though doesn’t attract a great deal of runners like this, they’re quite rare I would say. Most runners rock up in their favourite or best kit and I was pleased to note that many of the runners were wearing Oxsitis, Raidlight or Kalenji bags, undoubtedly the French appreciate these brands being reasonably readily available on the high street and support local brands. Shoe choices were equally local with most seeming to opt for Salomon or Kalenji – the good thing for me was I saw no Karrimor!

I’d chosen Altra for footwear and my beloved Oxsitis Hydragon for my back with a variety of OMM and Ronhill kit making up the rest, perhaps it was the kit that made me stand out as English as anyone that approached me spoke to me (generally) in my native tongue – clearly to the other runners I was not French!

Anyway to the race! The SainteLyon in its current form is a 72km race from St Etienne to Lyon, taking place the first weekend in December and setting off around midnight, you can read more about it here at Wikipedia. At around 11.30pm I drifted slowly to the start knowing that I would be starting near the back of the field but this would allow me to pick off runners later on (if I had any capacity to do so).

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The organisers though were releasing the runners in waves which meant that as I was at the back I would be one of the final runners to depart St Etienne. I could feel the cold setting in and I was geared for minimal warmth as I knew that during the race I would overheat with too many layers. I rubbed my arms periodically to retain warmth and hugged myself, while gently jigging on the spot – stopping sporadically to take photographs and make social media checks.

40 minutes later and, as promised, bang on time the music played, the horn blew and thousands of runners were released into the night. It was as magical as I remembered it, only this time there was no @kemptomslim to share the moment with and so I turned to look at the arch I had just run under and said ‘au revoir’ before turning on my heel and running into the Rhône Valley night.

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The first few kilometres are along the roads and lack any really interesting things to note other than the opportunity to catch some ground in the runners ahead of you or perhaps make some alliances to allow the hours to pass more pleasantly. I decided on the former rather than the latter and pressed firmly ahead knowing that conditions underfoot later in the race might slow me down. Perhaps the big clue as to the conditions was the fact that many runners had loaded up crampons to their race vests in preparation for cruddy conditions but at this early stage even those in their Kalenji Road shoes were running fine.

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While my French is limited I could feel the ambience of the race and the runners and there was a generally positive, goodwill feeling that swelled up around the runners in these early stages and you couldn’t help but be carried by this. For my part I darted between runners and ambled towards the trail which kicked in at around the 6km mark.

From here the light snowfall that we had seen on the sides of the road was replaced by much thicker, more dangerous, not so grippy snow and I recall as I headed down the trail that ‘bugger, this isn’t going to be as easy as last time’.

However, I am confident in my footwork and I was able to press on a little faster than those in front of me and as the kilometres marched downward toward the first checkpoint I started to feel very confident about running a good time. Despite a lack of training in the lead up to the race I was feeling surprisingly spritely too and as I hurled myself up and down the trails I was enjoying myself.

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I felt like I was in a good place and set myself up for cruise control to allow me some breathing room and to take photographs and simply to take joy from the experience. About 13km in, not long before the first checkpoint I looked behind me to see the procession of runners all twinkling behind me and then I really remembered why I love this race so much.

However, with underfoot conditions worsening I was glad to drop upon the first checkpoint and it was here that I stayed the longest of all the checkpoints – maybe 5 minutes, this was mainly due to the amount of people and partly because I actually wanted food. But it was still a short stop and thankfully they had full fat Coca Cola on offer and I enjoyed a cup full before heading out – no Rolo Cola this time @kemptonslim

I remembered that post checkpoints I was freezing cold for the first few minutes and so covered my fingers with the mitten part of my gloves and pulled my neck buff up and my head buff down and headed out. Weirdly though my nose was freezing and when I felt the front of my buff the snot and hot breath had frozen into a cold and icy mess. I folded it down a little and it was better but this would be the first buff to be replaced a few more kilometres down the trail.

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It was from here that you started noticing people putting crampons on as conditions underfoot deteriorated further and there was a visible increase in the amount of runners who were losing their legs beneath them, I was keen to go as fast as I could but knew two things;

  1. Falling would hurt
  2. I’d forgotten to buy ultra marathon sports insurance

and so I ran were it was appropriate and walked as quickly as possible everywhere else. It was about the 20km mark that I heard the sounds of an Australian accent behind me and for a short while I’d met someone who spoke English natively and we had a lovely brief chat before we went our sort of separate ways. This was her first ultra marathon and her French friend felt this would be a great introduction to ultras and when I saw her she looked the business taking her fast marathon form into the STL. I would see a little more of her later.

The second section unlike the first had a greater degree of pure Trail and both my knees and back appreciated this. The trail was incredibly variable with some being good clear trail, other parts moist but most were snow and ice covered and progress remained slower than I would have liked but still not bad. The STL though has a very interesting aspect to it that say something like the CCC does not – overtaking. Although the route is busy with runners the potential for overtaking is enormous and you find yourself gearing up past runners all the time and then being overtaken by them! This has benefits for the relay runners who are undoubtedly fresher than the full distance runners and even for the Express (44km) runners that you might meet.

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I found myself hitting some decent running in this section and engaging in lots of overtaking and being overtaken and it was fabulous hearing the phrase ‘a gauche’ or ‘a droit’ – I can’t tell my left from my right in English so I had to concentrate hard to get it right in French!

Although not clock watching I was very aware that my time was better than it had been in 2015 and some basic mental calculations suggested I could shave off around two or three hours from my previous outing and despite an injury and illness hit few months I was giving it as much welly as the ground would allow. However, all of this was to grind to a halt and all the good work undone. At about 23km in the ground became so icy that runners couldn’t even walk on it and in front of you a plethora of bodies were strewn across the trail.

A runner would fall and the phrase ‘ca va?’ would be called the two or three runners that would stop to pick up their fallen comrade. I brought my own race to a stop to assess the conditions and decided that I would use what visual clues I had before me, track the steps of the runners ahead of me and go as carefully as possible. Sections were becoming so severe that runners were sitting on their arses and pushing themselves down the trail on their hands.

I witnessed bloodied and bruised runners ahead of me but their tenacity meant that most would get up. My problems intensified though when at 26km my trusty Altra gave into the ice and I was thrust skyward and came down with a thud. I’d broken the fall with my back and smashed my headand although I got up straight away I was in pain – my recent back troubles suddenly came rushing back and my head felt woozy. I knew that Sainte-Catherine was only a couple of kilometres further on and so I followed the crowd, walking now and not in a good place. I slipped and slid more, desperate to keep my feet but I fell a further three times before the second checkpoint and when I crashed in I felt like death.

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I took a few minutes and ate emmental and salami to help get something in me and for both the first and last time I wondered if I should stop and seek medical attention. The answer was ‘no’ and with that I set off again. I tried to focus on the trail and ran reciting song lyrics and poetry to myself as I’ve often found this works to stop me thinking about more painful distractions. The various falls though and those to come had given me s kicking and perhaps had my head taken a worse knock than it did I would have had the common sense to stop – but I didn’t. The trail continued to worsen and we were now into the coldest part of the night and at the highest, often most exposed points, when the wind whipped through it passed straight through me but I refused to put additional layers on knowing that this would simply infuriate me.

Upon reach Inge the highest point of the race I felt something of an achievement, despite having run it before I convinced myself that the rest of the course was downhill but this was ridiculous and actually the most dangerous Running was just around the corner.

I could see the pack starting to gather ahead of me, the ice, once again so bad that runners were sat on the floor dragging themselves down and the mountain rescue, aided by quad bikes were going back and forth collecting runners from the trail. In my head I refused to sit down and drag myself along, I refused to bow, in my head I could here Terence Stamps, Zod calling out, ‘kneel before Zod son of Jor-el’ and although I’m no Superman i knew that the moment I gave in I would death march this home.

My decision to stay stood cost me a couple of falls and a fellow runner came sliding into the back of me taking me out at one point. My already broken body didn’t have the required agility to jump straight back up this time but my fellow runners pulled me to my feet quickly and set me on my way. I was hurting now in lots of ways but the mild delirium kept me on the straight and narrow!

Ha!

I dragged my sorry arse into the checkpoint and found a quiet spot to change head torches and power my phone up after the cold had simply switched it off. I didn’t bother with food or drink here – I was feeling sickly but I hoped this would pass if I quickly got out of the checkpoint and avoided the dreaded DNF.

I was a marathon or so in and light would soon be upon these beautiful French lands and with it I felt conditions would improve if only because I’d be able to see but the news was a bit better than that – the closer to Lyon we got the better the trail conditions got and icy conditions became more sporadic. My head was also starting to clear a little bit and despite the physical pain I could feel myself running more and more with confidence returning that I could control both my ascents and more importantly the descents.

Finally after the drama and trauma of the night I was back in the race – although the slow progress through the ice had ensured that there was no way I was going to run faster than the previous attempt.

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We were also on the countdown to the finish ‘SainteLyon 25km arrivee’ I pushed on as fast as I could, walking the hills as quickly as possible and staying steady across the flat and downhills. I stopped briefly to top up my calories with a couple of caramel Freddo and some icy water and took a look back to realise that there still many, many runners behind me – this was clearly proving a hard slog for everyone.

With 20km to go I pulled into the next checkpoint and pulled out again quickly – I’d been keeping tabs on the young Australian girl and her friend who I’d inadvertently been playing overtaking tennis with and decided that I could use her as my pacer – the aim? To beat her to the finish. The final 20km are much more road based which doesn’t really suit my running style nor my injury record, however, it did allow me to push on without too much concern for what was happening at foot level.

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about 5km in to the final 20km I saw my new target drift ahead of me – still looking strong and here I thought it was all over, I didn’t have a race in me – or so I thought. With just over 10km left I entered the final checkpoint had arrived at the outskirts of Lyon. I saw the two runners I was trailing and asked how they were getting on, they described a tale of woe in the icy conditions and my internal Schadenfreude said, ‘hehe’ but instant karma paid me back by making me bite down hard on my own finger instead of the cheese and salami I was holding. I base them farewell and wished them a good final push but I knew I could get there before them.

Boom!

Finally the sun was warming, I removed my buffs, my gloves and rolled my sleeves up. I knew the route from here, I could smell the finish line in the distance and even the good awful climb into the city I flew up much to the amusement of runners behind me. There are steps on the descent into Lyon and the finish – lots of them and ahead of me I could see runners gingerly hobbling down them but I pushed hard knowing that I could continue to climb the rankings.

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Off the steps, down to the river, up the winding steps, over one bridge, fly past the musee de confluences and over the final bridge, cheering supporters shouting, ‘Allez!’ And clapping calling out, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’

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I had decided on my finish routine long ago for this race and I ambled along to the final 200metres, I could see runners ahead of me and at the right moment I pressed my feet into the floor and like a rocket I blasted off much to the surprise of the crowd who whooped and hollered as I hit full pace. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 runners down, runner number 6 with his hands in the air smacked me in the head but I was in full glorious flow and I hurtled towards the final turn – taking it wide to ensure I could cross the line flat out! I passed a couple of final runners at the line and I was over.

It was over! I was over!

  • Distance: 72km
  • Ascent: +2000 metres
  • Location: Lyon
  • Cost: £65
  • Runners: 7,000 (15,000 over all distances)
  • Terrain: Mixed, icy, rocky, hilly, tough
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Organisation
The STL is possibly the best organised race I’ve ever run, but then after 64 editions perhaps that is to be expected. However, they clearly keep on making minor corrections to the system to ensure that runners know what’s going on and what they have to do. Things like transport to the start for thousands of runners is slick and well rehearsed and the checkpoints although busy are all easily accessible as a runner.

As a French classic there isn’t much information in English but Google translate is helpful and the volunteer army was amazing in helping me with questions I had.

There was also excellent social media connectivity and the tracking was quick, up to date and working unlike at so many events (yep I’m thinking of you UTMB). The STL scores incredibly highly for organisation.

Volunteers
All volunteers are amazing but the SainteLyon volunteers are out in some freezing cold conditions for a very long period and they remain hugely upbeat – they are a credit to the race and to European Ultra Running. There should also be a special mention to the many people who came out on to the course to support, whether they had a runner or not, truly special.

Route
The route had something for everyone whether you’re a trail lover, a road hog or somewhere in between. The ascents are sharp and the descents technical in places but it’s fun and the route is mostly wide enough for easy overtaking. The views for this route are strange in that you are in the middle of the night so it’s dark but the lights of the runners illuminate things around you and in the distance and that’s a beautiful sight. I feel very much the reason I love the STL so much is because the route is both challenging and fun, this time it really did show me it’s tough side but that doesn’t change my opinion that this is an everyman course and with a bit of tenacity you can do it.

Awards
I would love, love, love a SainteLyon medal but solo finishers are presented with a T shirt instead – a nice technical shirt but still not a medal. This year pre-race they also supplied a snood/buff and a pair of STL branded warm socks which are excellent. There were all sorts of other goodness such as the post race and pre race food (I didn’t bother with either but I heard good things about it). All in all the awards are great but I’d love a medal (take the hint organisers).

Costs
To give an indication of cost I paid around £85 return flights (London Luton – Lyon). £22 for the return express train to Lyon from the airport and about £85 for three nights Airbnb in the centre of Lyon as well as £60 for the race and transport. Other costs included a couple of technical SainteLyon t-shirts and a bobble hat (total cost £27). All in, transport, race, goodies, tourism and food £300.

Logistics
I’ve written in my previous STL about logistics but Lyon is 1hr 25mons from London and Lyon Airport is 30 mins from the city centre. I used AirBnB for accommodation which was lovely and the race itself provides buses to the start for €13 and this is easily the best way of arriving fresh at the start. The organisers and Lyon/St Etienne are very well prepared for this event and as far as I could tell it runs smoothly and logistically brilliantly.

Value for money
Value for money is a very subjective thing, for example some people even believe that OCR events are good value but this is a different kettle of fish. Entry is €63 – this includes the €3 service charge and what you get is not only a truly glorious event but also tremendous support (be that through volunteers, cheering supporters or food at checkpoints), most importantly though you receive a brilliantly organised event and having some events not this well set up I can tell you I appreciate the value of a good team delivering on their promises.

Favourite moments
This year was a little different to 2015 but it had no fewer highlights, below are five moments that really made a difference to my race.

  1. The start line, such an icon of the race and filled with all sorts of emotion. The moment the runners all started hugging and patting each other on their backs just made me feel connected to my fellow competitors
  2. Standing at various high points of the route and looking back to see the procession of lights running to catch me and the people ahead of me.
  3. The two young children and their mother offering water, coffee, goodies and support in the darkest hours of the race
  4. The cries of Allez! Allez! Allez! and Bravo!
  5. My sprint to the finish line

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Conclusion
Going back to the SainteLyon after 2015 was never in doubt. I had loved the idea of it and loved the execution of it. After being busy with Haria Extreme in 2016 I knew I would be returning to Lyon this year but what I hadn’t been prepared for was a hugely different experience.

In truth, as I look back on it, I enjoyed this year even more than my first time because of how close I came to failing and yet still clinging on. However, it wasn’t just that it was also the fact I got to enjoy the race, to watch the landscape move before my very eyes in a procession of light and because the SainteLyon continues to tease, ‘come back UltraBoy you can run me faster’.

Going back to the SainteLyon is a certainty because there is something special about it that no other race I’ve done has given me the feeling I get here. It might have left me broken into a thousand pieces but I would rather that it was body broken than my heart. SainteLyon 2017 – I loved you.

You can learn more about the race at www.saintelyon.com and below is a gallery of images taken during the 2017 event!

 

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